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Fear of anxiety itself

It is for each of us to decide how much (if at all) we want to change the hold that anxiety has on us

03 September 2020, at 7:00am

In recent months, the vast majority of my clients have said they are having trouble coming to terms with the levels of anxiety they are feeling. Maybe it’s COVID. Maybe they have always had a certain amount of unexplored anxiety running in the background and now it’s come to the fore. Maybe they have a story totally unrelated to COVID which is causing them anxiety.

The fact is that feeling anxious is part of the human experience. Most people describe a range of symptoms such as nausea, tight chest, tension in the jaw and shoulders, raised heart rate or palpitations and a lump in their throat.

Whether we have conquered problems in the past which were causing us concern, only for them to rear their ugly heads again many years later, or only recently discovered this phenomenon called anxiety which is novel to us, it’s true to say that feeling anxiety and fear is generally unpleasant.

So, we avoid it. As a single-celled organism avoids a noxious substance, we avoid unpleasant thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations reflexively. Being self-aware and thus knowing what is likely to cause us fear and anxiety, we often avoid situations which will make us feel this way. Sensible, right? Or, are we limiting ourselves and our experiences in life by avoiding these places, people and activities?

Wouldn’t it be great if someone could wave a magic wand and make all those unpleasant feelings disappear, opening up a world of previously avoided opportunities for us?

Maybe life is just fine like this and the avoidance of potentially anxiety-ridden scenarios is working for you. There is no right or wrong degree of risk when it comes to placing yourself in the middle of uncomfortable emotions.

However, some of us may feel anxiety related to past situations which are recurrent whether we like it or not. For example, ongoing health concerns which are unavoidable, people in our lives who are toxic and unavoidable, subop­timal employment issues. Maybe it’s just the profession we’re in.

And others of us would simply rather not feel limited by our fears and would like to be more adventurous and braver. But is it the situation we fear? Or are we afraid of feeling anxious? If it’s the latter, why are we afraid of an emotion?

Mindfulness practice is about being totally present in the current moment, on purpose. But what if the current moment is a terrible crisis? What if the current moment is mid-global pandemic?

Being present with our emotions and thoughts is not just about truly appreciating the wonderful moments in life before they pass by. It’s about noticing the thoughts and being aware of their influence on us, our minds and our bodies.

So, during your mindfulness practice, allowing yourself to feel anxious can be surprisingly therapeutic. We already know from previous articles that the act of feeling an emotion, looking it in the face and giving it a name already defuses its hold over us. It is possible to take that a bit further in our mindfulness practice.

Jon Kabat Zin describes this venture into uncomfortable feelings as dipping our toe into cold water. You know how it is, you dip a toe in, you become acclimatised to the unpleasant feelings and then you put your foot in. Soon, both feet are in and then you very slowly wade in up to your knees or even take the plunge and swim - “it’s OK once you’re in”.

Similarly, when sitting on the cushion or wherever else you choose to meditate, really getting dug into this emotion and these feelings of sickness in your stomach can be a “dipping in of your toe” and accli­matising yourself to these uncomfortable sensations, further liberating you from their grip.

For those feeling very brave, while meditating, try to become aware of your racing pulse, your hyperpnoea, really be at one with that feeling you want to throw up. Hold that thought and dive in. And then, maybe, just maybe, it’s not so bad once you’re in.

A rapid heart rate and a lurching of your stomach are unpleasant for sure. But are they to be feared to such a degree that you limit your life choices to avoid them at all costs?

With each scenario, it’s worth asking yourself: “Is it the scenario you’re afraid of? Or is it the emotions you fear?”

Laura Woodward Counselling

Laura Woodward has been the surgeon at Village Vet Hampstead for over 10 years. Laura is also a qualified therapeutic counsellor and is affiliated with the ACPNL and the ISPC. She runs Laurawoodward.co.uk – a counselling service for vets and nurses.

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